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Ayers Creek Farm Newsletter August 23 2015 Market

Sarah West

Goodbye Chester, Hello AstianaWhen the leaves display their autumn color, the bright yellows, oranges and reds appear because the green chlorophyll has been disassembled by the tree, and the other pigments in the leaf that have been there all along become apparent to the eye. This week there is a distinct shift in the flavor of the berries as the pectins and various flavor components in the fruit drop, and some of the more subtle flavors that were lost among the stronger elements are now out in front, the Chester's version of 'So Long, Farewell', or Hayden's "Farewell" Symphony, if you prefer the image of the performance ending on muted notes of the violin. Among the berries, this shifting flavor is unique to the Chester because of its long season, about five weeks in all. You can pick up the last of the season's now muted notes this weekend. We have posted our "Farewell Chester" letter to our buyers; strangely early and without the rain's coupe de grace that so often closes the harvest. This is the first time we have stopped before the school buses start.

An oft repeated excuse for being "almost organic but not actually certified" rests on the unspecified cost of certification and the burden it creates for small farmers. Here is our actual out-of-pocket cost of certification for our dinky farm in 2015:

Application fee: $100.00
Inspection fee: 925.75
USDA Cost-Share: (750.00)
Total cost: $275.75

Since the adoption of the National Organic Program in 2002, the USDA has provided a cost-share program for farms going through the certification process. Among its strongest champions are our own Representatives Earl Blumenauer and Peter Defazio. We have been certified organic since 1999, back when it was fine to call a farm "organic" without any meaningful standards or inspections. Certification is never a cakewalk, and demands careful record-keeping and documentation of the farm's management. At times the details can be frustrating but never formidable; certification has made us better farmers. And, we will add as growers who bridged the two eras, the adoption of the national program has improved the quality of certification.

In our case, the cost difference between "almost certified" and certified is $275.75. The actual cost will vary from farm to farm, but it is a modest expense relative to other farm costs, not a crippling burden of thousands or tens of thousands as some farmers intimate. Gives Anthony an excuse to keep his flip phone and 56K modem so we have enough brass to cover that fearsome certification bill.

Another favorite excuse is that "you can't grow this or that crop organically." Is that so? Then Ayers Creek must be an ongoing failure as a farm because there are few crops we haven't grown over the years, all organically. We shun or drop crops because they don't work out with our current staffing, they don't make money, or in rare cases we find them simply boring, blueberries fit that category, not because they can't be grown organically. The first is the most common reason because, as Zenón and Abel will tell you, we are way over-extended and it is only due to their superhuman efforts that Ayers Creek doesn't collapse into a pile of rotten produce due to our vernal exuberance.

The 'Astianas' started ripening a couple of weeks ago. You missed them at the market because they never arrived. We ate all of them, savoring every single one; farmer's privilege. It is such a lovely fruit, an everyday workhorse of a culinary tomato, and we never weary of it. We will have a few crates full this week. Enjoy these first fruits fresh, in the grasshopper's moment, sliced and fried for breakfast, or in a fresh sauce with basil, fresh onion and garlic over some sort of pasta. As in the past, next week we will have the 20# bulk boxes for sale, and then you can kick in that Aesop's ant side of the brain and put them in jars. They will come in over the next three to four weeks.

We will also bring in the field run tomatillos. "Field run" is a trade term and means they are not graded according to size, color, &c. Pretty much everything we sell is field run. For the tomatillos, we selected out a diverse group of fruits for seed production, so it a good mix of types. Both tomatoes and tomatillos should be stored on the kitchen counter where there is good airflow. The tomatoes continue to ripen off the plant and, especially in Oregon, a few days on the counter finishes the flavor nicely. Our nights are a tad cool for tomatoes, especially in rural areas where the radiational cooling is stronger, and there is no concrete to store the day's warmth. We have had tomatillos last until March sitting in a colander. Peppers are better left on the counter as well.

We will have chickpeas and barley, and a few straggling packages of frikeh. We will bring in preserves again. Onions, garlics, tarragon. The beginning of the grapes.

Carol and Anthony Boutard
Ayers Creek Farm

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A personal note:

I grew up in a country where I was an untarnished citizen, even though my parents were immigrants. Courtesy of the 14th Amendment, the fact that I was conceived in another country and neither of my parents were citizens didn't matter a wit. I registered to vote and attended town meetings, and have never shrunk from participating in the messy business of government. Over the years, I have missed just one special election, even voting when the election involves just a handful of unopposed individuals and might be dismissed as unimportant. To the people who bother to get on the ballot the vote is always important.

Today, I am what the nativists call an "anchor baby,", a child born to immigrants but still entitled to citizenship. Or as some put it charmingly, a "child who was dropped in America." In fact, under the immigration rules in force back in the 1950s, my mother had to hide her pregnancy during the immigration interview or they would have been denied entry. Mother succeeded and I was born three months later, the first United States citizen in the Boutard tribe.

For the last 17 years, I have had the pleasure of working with a variety of immigrants whose children were born here, and are citizens in the fullest meaning of the word. Like me, their children had no choice regarding the location of their conception or birth. Unlike me, they are having their citizenship called into question at a critical time in their lives. Fifteen years ago, I was brought up short by a 16-year old woman who, when I asked for her resident alien card, snapped back that she was a citizen and provided her passport. I apologized for my assumption and smiled explaining that my parents also carried resident alien cards, easing the tension. Since then, my assumption has changed. The truth is that both of us knew that no one ever assumed I wasn't a citizen. I have registered to vote in four different states and no one has ever asked for proof of citizenship, even though as a child of immigrants I bear a touch of accent. And when I was a youngster, no one ever told me I wasn't welcome in this country because my parents were aliens.

Children of immigrants from non-English speaking countries encounter a special challenge. They often have to serve as translators and intermediaries for their parents. This is true whether their parents come from the Ukraine, Poland, Japan, Vietnam, Sierra Leone, Iran or Mexico. They are a fragile bridge between their parents and everyday life, between two spheres of authority. They translate contracts, fill in forms and roll with the patronizing English-speaking adults. They should earn our praise and support, a kind word not our petty slurs.

One of Francois Truffaut's later films, Small Change (link), deals with the travails of children in society. He deftly and humorously examines the callous way we treat children and the affronts they suffer at the hands of adults. The fact that our political discourse has dipped back into the wallow of "anchor babies" is very dispiriting, and underscores Truffaut's point that we crap on children all too often and all too easily.

Anthony

Ayers Creek Farm Newsletter August 16 2015 Market

Sarah West

One of Rachel Carson's early articles for the American Naturalist Society was "How About Citizenship Papers for the Starling?" Loud, joyful and brash, these handsome birds are always looking for a party. Competent and improvisational songsters, but most of all they are engaging mimics. If a siren goes off at the firehouse, they will spend the next hour or two refining their siren call until, that is, a rooster crows, and then they are on that project. A tom quail calls, and an echo erupts from every idle starling. Around noontime, they descend on the bird bath in a group, splashing about until barely a drop remains, leaving a few flower petals and leaves afloat in the puddle. For some reason, they feel compelled to decorate their bath, as well as their nest, with pretty bits and fragrant herbs. Of course, when they bathe the noisy creatures squawk just like children enjoying a summer pool, then fly off as a group for some other diversion or entertainment.

Back in 1939, Carson was urging us to drop our animus for the bird and appreciate its pluck and value. Nothing has changed, starlings still bear the double burden of being an immigrant, and flying while black. In farming areas, the starling and the crow can be shot at will, any time of the year. Going back a half century, the starling was accused of spreading a lung disease, histoplasmosis, threatening an as yet unrealized public health crisis. Shortly after the E. coli and spinach episode in 2006, scientists at Ohio State Extension raised the public health banner against the starling once more, along with a cool million, to see if the bird causes food safety problems by spreading the diseases from feedlots. Apparently, they convinced enough people of the problem, and received another $2.3-million. For what its worth, starlings are attracted to feedlots because they are primarily insectivores, and insects are provided there in abundance. Our filthy food production habit is their treasure.

Interestingly, the one case we recall where a flock of birds were implicated in an E. coli outbreak happened in English pea field in Alaska, and migrating Sand Hill Cranes were named as the culprit. But they are not reviled like the starling, so no snarling about a public health crisis due to cranes. The real problem was that the peas were machine harvested and no one checked the field beforehand. Machines do not not share our visceral reaction to animal feces, they plod along happily consuming the crop. Our displacement of humans with machines in the harvest of fruits and vegetables warrants more attention.

In an odd way starlings and other wild creatures received good news this week. Following the 2006 spinach problem, and other similar incidents, including strawberries and hazelnuts from Oregon, food safety wonks advised farmers that they should create lifeless zones around their farms to eliminate the possibility of wildlife bringing in E.coli, Salmonella and other food pathogens as a field contaminant. Remove trees and brush so birds can't roost or nest nearby, and animals can't hide. The mantra was that more scorched earth around the fields, the better, for nature is devious enemy that never sleeps. In brief, the research found no corresponding decrease in disease causing strains of Salmonella and E. coli associated with these measures. In fact, in some cases, an increase was detected. Diverse landscapes provide many advantages, and food safety may be one of them, but never overstated.

There are many birds that eat farmers' fruits, but it is the epicurean delight starlings take in finding a good patch of cherries or berries that farmers find particularly galling. The merry cacophony rubs their nerves the wrong way. But farmers are always stingy with credit. When we cultivate the soil, an army of starlings waddles behind the tractor gleaning every wireworm and cutworm available, sometimes carrying eight or ten grubs in their long yellow bills. They fly back to their nest, and return seemingly just moments later. It we are not exposing grubs for them, they are working the berry fields and orchard, again carrying back a full bills of food. Watch their nest holes, and you will see them flying back and forth from sunup to dusk. Although they eat some fruit, insects and larvae are the staple of their diet.

The starlings are cavity nesters, and another one of the dire predictions made 50 years ago, repeated with the alacrity of a starling's mimicry, is the usurpation of other cavity nesters by these aliens. In our observations, flickers, starlings and kestrels share similar sized cavities, and they alternate sites from year to year. Swallows, chickadees, bluebirds and nuthatches use much smaller cavities than the starling. All of these cavity nesters have healthy population in spite of this dastardly usurper. In fact, the alternation of nest sites may provide a valuable health function for the three larger birds. They belong to three different avian orders, and consequently host different parasites, mites and insects. The birds are probably following a similar practice to farmers who rotate crops from different plant families to reduce disease and insect problems.

Finally, one more endearing trait of the starling. Remember the petals and leaves in the birdbath? It is part of their courtship ritual. The male starling finds a suitable cavity and builds a nest of fine grass decorated with petals and fragrant leaves. Very much like the bower bird, his female suitors visit and decide whether he is of the salt. When a female accepts the proposition, they finish the nest together, do some other stuff and she lays her eggs.

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We will haul in more Chesters, they are holding up well. As one produce manager noted this week, they have a more floral quality. Much thinner skinned as well.

We will set aside room for preserves this week. We will have chickpeas, frikeh and hulless barley. Tomatillos, onions, garlics, shallots and tarragon as well.

The intense delivery schedule has prevented us from checking the crops, but some other stuff should show up.

Best,

Carol and Anthony

Ayers Creek Farm Newsletter August 9 2015 Market

Sarah West

The human brain has a deep affinity for names. Soon we will start harvesting the nameless grape which we call a 'grape with no name', what a surprise. A nod to both Neil Young and a restaurant from decades past located on Commonwealth Pier in Boston. Run and staffed by descendants and family of Portuguese fishermen, the restaurant had no name, no sign and no menu. Enter the only blue doorway on the pier, and when it is your turn in the line, look for an opening among the long tables covered with checked oil cloth. Two choices for lunch, the day's seafood chowder and the day's fried seafood. It was the toughest choice ever put before us.

Our nameless grapes so named elicit opposite reactions. At Higgins, Greg and Patrick gamely put it on the menu as a 'grape with no name' whereas Josh and his staff at Food Front display them as 'Boutard grapes'. Despite our entreaties that food should be defined by how it falls on the palate, Josh told us a nameless grape is just too much for people to swallow. Heidi's son, Jack, calls them Anthony grapes. We will leave them nameless, but we appreciate the dedications.

Human brains have a similar affinity for measurements. One such measurement that draws the attention of farmers is soil pH. It is a number that comes with a decimal point. Attach a decimal point to any number and it immediately takes on a hypnotically greater significance than one without. It is also a logarithm, but that never grabs people to the same degree as a decimal. The other alluring quality of soil pH is that it can be changed simply and reliably if deemed not optimal, typically raised at little cost by the application of agricultural lime. Synthetic fertilizers tend to acidify the soil, reducing nutrient availability, and lime acts as an antacid of sorts, as well as providing the element calcium. Plop, plop, fizz, fizz . . .

Under certified organic agriculture, synthetic nutrient sources with their acidifying behavior, as well as synthetic disease and pest controls, are prohibited. Indigestion solved? Not if you consider pH alone. On occasion we have had our soil tested, and the test results always included the pH as a perfunctory service. The results are all over the map, from 4.9 to about 7.1. It is a labile character of the soil, shifting with the seasons and crops, and its measurement is generally not particularly informative. In an organically managed soil, the bacteria, fungi, microfauna and the crops themselves all influence pH. So our soil might be acidic enough to warrant adjusting in a synthetic regime, but not under organic management.

But what about the calcium? Don't we need to add lime anyway, and the pH will tell us how much is safe to add because excess lime can damage the soil and inhibit plant growth? There are six elements plants need in substantial quantities: nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, sodium, calcium and sulphur. We have to amend our soils to maintain sufficient levels of these elements; this is especially important on a commercial farm where we are hauling into market substantial quantities of these elements in the form of food.

On an organic farm, calcium and sulphur are especially important because they are the building blocks for the plant's defenses against diseases and insects. Calcium is a key element for cell wall strength – most of the plant's calcium actually resides in its cell walls – and sulphur is a building block for the crop's internal chemical defenses. On a farm where the crops have external chemical defenses against disease and insects, that is synthetic fungicides and insecticides applied by the farmer, the cultivator need only provide just enough calcium and sulphur for basic biological functions. Organic farms have spiders, dragonflies and a host of other predaceous arthropods helping to control the insect populations, as well as beneficial bacteria, yeast and fungi that ward off disease, but we need strong plants as well. Consequently, crops grown under organic management need more calcium and sulphur available in the soil, in fact nearing an excess under conventional nutrient interpretations.

As mentioned above, agricultural lime, calcium carbonate (CaCO3) is problematic as a calcium source. It can damage the soil's structure and chemistry. Although it is cheap, a 50# bag of lime costs about $4.15, it is not the best deal. Another good source is gypsum, but it does cost about 50% more, at $6.05 for a 50# bag. Even though it is nominally more expensive, we use gypsum exclusively, and never use lime. Generous applications of gypsum do not harm the soil, in fact the mineral improves the soil's texture, nor does it change the pH significantly. This is important because many fungi and bacteria thrive in certain pH levels, and changing the pH suddenly and significantly without a very good reason can alter the microbial ecology of the soil unproductively.

Gypsum is calcium sulphate (CaSO4). The best reason for using gypsum from the perspective of an organic grower is that you get both important elements, calcium and sulfur, and pay just 50% more. A very good a deal, especially when you factor in the costs of transportation and spreading the amendment. The other problem with lime is that the carbonate anion is at best valueless, possibly harmful, absent terrestrial indigestion; plants fix their own carbon from the air through photosynthesis so it is completely non-nutritive. We use gypsum for all our crops, annual and perennial, and buy more of it than any other amendment.

A cautionary note on gypsum sources. It is best to avoid recycled gypsum because some older wallboard contained trace amounts of mercury as an anti-fungal agent, or fungicides. The Organic Materials Research Institute (OMRI) tests and certifies materials used in organic agriculture. On bags of gypsum and other amendments, it is best to look for the statement "OMRI Approved" or "OMRI Listed." We also use a small bucketful of gypsum to mark yellow jacket nests so no one walks into them. We toss it over the hole and they dig their way out unharmed. They are valuable predators and scavengers, worth keeping so long as we know where they are.

Too often, organic agriculture is characterized in the negative, especially the absence of synthetic pesticides. Once you settle in as an organic farmer, success comes with managing the soil ecology so that you build strong crops that coexist with the benefits and the challenges that nature delivers. Book 18 of Pliny's Natural History is his discussion of farming. The book opens with a rambling plea regarding stewardship of the earth – he was no Homer or Sappho – but as you read it the fundamental spirit of organic agriculture is apparent. He laments the tendency of farmers to treat their fields like a battle field, deploying poisons and other measures against nature. He urges us to farm in a manner that thanks nature for bringing us into world, and treats her as our benefactor in a shared enterprise with the full measure her creation. It is apt advice 2,000 years later.

Following that rambling introduction, here is what should be in the van Sunday:

Lots of Chesters. We are entering the tail of the season. We have just finished the seventh delivery to our retail accounts. Typically we make 11 deliveries, so we are well past the halfway mark. If you want to make preserves from these berries, you will need to add pectin. – Mixed hull-less barley and chickpeas. Tarragon, onions, garlics and shallots. – Lots of maybes and some bobs. – Our harvest schedule still a little off kilter with this season.

And, of course, we will bring our cheerful countenance which remains in good kilter,

Carol and Anthony Boutard
Ayers Creek Farm

Ayers Creek Farm Newsletter August 2 2015 Market

Sarah West

As the Blue Moon sets, the new day marks an old Anglican celebration, the Lammastide. On this day, the British celebrated mass at the start of the wheat harvest with loaf of bread made from the new crop. The word, in typical British fashion, is likely a corruption of "Loaf Mass," though ponderous sorts have tried to document less plausible derivations. Rooted in the rural parishes, Lammas faded from the liturgical calendar with the industrialization of the 19th century.

We can only wish that Vaughn Williams had composed a piece to celebrate the Lammas. Digging about, we found but one hymn that had a peculiar martial bent to it. Not even worth quoting. For those of us born under the sign of Aries, it is easy to conceive of the harvest a sensuous, fertile moment, not a forced march into the fields. Indeed, in the Northeastern states, the community corn harvest brought the town's families together and was called a "frolic" where rewards were tendered with a buss, not script.

Today, the word lammas is used more often by arborists, foresters and plant physiologists than the clergy. Lammas growth is the second spurt of growth following fruiting, typically around the beginning of August. This growth is tender and runs the risk of damage if it fails to harden off before the frost falls. Our kestrels and barn owls are raising what might be termed a lammas brood. A bit exasperating as both are noisy species; the kestrels all day and the owls take the night watch.

This week, we harvested the chickpeas. Despite our best efforts, the harvest is about a third of what we expected. A real consequence of the dry spring and early summer. Chickpeas are a spring-planted dryland crop and a few May rains are essential for good yields. Our wheat was also on the shy side, but less so because most of its growth takes place during the winter rains. Barley, which also grows through the winter but is easily knocked down and damaged by the May rains, produced an excellent crop without that challenge. A diversity of crops means the disappointments are mingled with the successes. Keeps you humble even as the occasion may call for celebration.

For farmers, the hardest decision is to walk away from a crop. Thursday, Zenón and Anthony took a look at the currants and gooseberries with a thought to the autumn tasks. Zenón exposed a few branches with beautiful black currants dangling from them. Smiling, he said Abel advised him not to show Antonio the fruit, lest he get an idea that it should be harvested. Irresistable. In bold red letters on the day's picking list was 20 flats of black currants, much to the momentary horror of staff. Actually, we will walk away from the fruit, it is not worth the time or distraction. Though is never with pleasure, coming to such a decision is cause for relief. The time we might have spent messing with the currants will be better invested on managing the grapes and beans. Three years ago, as some of you may recall, we had to walk away from the grapes because of severe mildew. Rather than lament what is lost, we best revel in what providence has delivered, and this year it will be the grapes and barley, as well as corn, beans and blackberries.

To assuage any pent-up demand for Chesters after last week's disappointing weather moment, we will bring the belly of the van full of blackberries. We will add braces and stack as many crates as we dare on the upper level. Topside, we will have this year's harvest of mixed hull-less barley, chickpeas, garlics & shallots and other odds and ends.

We will see you all tomorrow,

The Boutards
Ayers Creek Farm

Ayers Creek Farm Newsletter 10 August 2014

Sarah West

We have been caught in the riptide of the season where the harvest of the Chesters continues apace and we are sowing our winter crops. Hence less prolix than usual. The seedling chicories, including our first re-selection of the late Treviso type, are emerging. Barely visible, they show up as a thin green line when viewed down the row rather than as individuals. To make up for last year's disaster, we have doubled the planting, such is the thing of a farmer.

Into this mix, we are restoring a 1941 Allis Chalmers All Crop 60. We dragged it home ten years ago and we have tackled the project bit by bit, with progress measured in its disassembly. Our son-in-law and his kid are visiting in late August, and the goal is to have it up and running by then. Otherwise we won't have chickpeas and barley this year. Every restorer's nightmare, nurtured by the hapless coyote in Roadrunner, is that a single bolt is forgotten and, upon starting, the machine collapses into a pile of rubble. If it is oddly missing during the Ramble, that is what happened.

We will take a moment Sunday to bring you lots of Chesters, cucumbers, summer squash, long red onions, garlics, along with dry favas, popcorn and Amish Butter cornmeal. The first of the Astianas are ripening and we will have a couple crates, and maybe a few green gages. All this will be available for purchase once the Hillsdale Farmers Market bell rings at 10:00 AM.

Best,
Carol and Anthony Boutard
Ayers Creek Farm

Ayers Creek Farm Newsletter 3 August 2014

Sarah West

Who would miss the first Hillsdale Farmers' Market following the Lammas? We will be there, ready at 10:00 AM.

This week we will have Chester and Triple Crown blackberries, long red onions and a mixture of cucumbers, frikeh, popcorn, Amish Butter cornmeal and dry favas. The focus will be on the blackberries. We have even purchased smaller scales so we can fit more Chesters in the van, how's that for dedication.

Several years ago, we prepared a pot of favas for a visit by friends. Cooked slowly with a bit of rosemary, garlic and olive oil, and still in their skins. Prior to dinner, we sat down with a drink. They are well-traveled and full of stories. They recounted how they visited a farm in Sicily or maybe the south of France or Spain, little matter. In the midst of all of the beautiful fruits and vegetables growing on the farm, their hosts chose to serve a simple bowl of favas, still in their skins, cooked with bit of rosemary, garlic and olive oil. They thought it peculiar and offhanded. In the midst of all of the beautiful fruits and vegetables growing at Ayers Creek, the two of us exchanged a quick glance and dinner evolved.

For the farmer, favas are a crop that expresses the very elements of the land. They are the most feline of the legumes, scarcely giving a damn how the farmer tends them. Strong-willed, they grow without supplements or irrigation. Lentils and chickpeas are of a similar nature. They are deep rooted and the land rather than the farmer gives them their character. This is perhaps why farmers distant from one another would act similarly as hosts. It is our nod the soil as the ultimate influence on what we produce.

We have a used copy of John Thorne's collection of essays, Outlaw Cook. It is spotless with the exception of the neatly pencilled word "reread" at the beginning of the essay on ful medames. We have obeyed the previous owner's direction, and commend it. The fava, known as ful and variations thereof through the Middle East, is a fragrant and very nourishing legume. We prefer to soak the favas for a couple of days and then cook them. Cook them slowly and gently until the interior is creamy. At this point you can season them in the manner of ful medames, or add a variety of summer vegetables. They are also wonderful roasted or fried so the skin becomes a crunchy contrast to the soft interior. In the winter we roast them with the root vegetables. There is a fascination in the United States with disrobing the poor dear, discarding the skin and keeping just its soft interior. This is the same place that decided that the skin of chicken is somehow unsavory, so they are sold skinless as well. Suit yourself, the flavor of the skin is essential to our enjoyment of the fava and the chicken so, like most other civilized people around the globe, we enjoy both in their fullness.

Incidentally, these favas are a variety that are traditionally dried. They have a beautiful celandine blush, a sweet flavor and a wonderful fragrance. The favas most commonly grown for their fresh pods are awful dry. Even so, not everyone loves favas. It is a defining rather than an acquired taste.

We will see you all Sunday,

Carol and Anthony

Ayers Creek Farm Newsletter 27 July 2014

Sarah West

This Sunday morning we will take a break from delivering Chester Thornless Blackberries to Pastaworks, Food Front and New Seasons to, well, to get up much earlier than normal and bring more Chesters to the Hillsdale Farmers' Market where we will lord our own produce section from 10:00 AM to 2:00 PM.

Does that sound like a rut, or what. Nonetheless, the fragrance of some many fresh blackberries never wears on us, and even with the last deliveries, we will grab a few off the top as we load and unload them. If you want Chesters from the store, when they bear our yellow sticker they are the genuine fruit.

In addition to Chesters and Triple Crown blackberries, we will bring some cucumbers, long red onions, purslane and amaranth greens, plums, frikeh, Amish Butter cornmeal and popcorn. Probably some other stuff, too, if time permits.

We do not bring in preserves during fresh fruit season; you will need to seek them out at the following stores who are kind enough to carry them:

City Market, 735 NW 21st Ave.
Food Front, both Hillsdale & NW Thurman
Foster & Dobbs, 2518 NE 15th Ave
Gaston Market, Gaston, OR
Pastaworks, 3735 SE Hawthorne Blvd
Peoples Cooperative, 3029 SE 21st Ave.
Vino, 138 SE 28th Ave.

Sparrow Hawks

Ayers Creek Farm is 144 acres, almost a half-mile square, actually more a trapezoidal-rhomboidal hybrid than a simple square. At the northern end of the property we have about 22 acres of oak savannah and the farm buildings. It is a raptor rich area, supporting a nesting pair each of great horned owls and red tailed hawks, two pairs of barn owls, as well as two to three pairs of kestrels.

Kestrels – those of us over 50 most likely grew up calling them "sparrow hawks" and we like that name better – are the smallest of the falcons and in nest in holes. They have narrow, swept back wings and a long tail, and the head markings often adopted in the ancient helmets of warriors. These traits are shared with their larger brethren, including the merlins and peregrines that linger during migration. These birds of the savannah and grasslands are permanent residents in the Willamette Valley, and you often see them hunting from utility wires. We build 20-foot tall perches to make their wintertime perch-and-pounce hunting method easier across the property. On the lighter summer and autumn air, kestrels will hover above the field. The slighter males have slate blue wings which distinguishes them from their mates that have brown wings.

At Ayers Creek, the kestrels have utilized both natural cavities in trees as well as boxes we build. However wholesome "natural" may sound, as with us, a fine stickbuilt with an ample floor plan is preferred by the birds over a dank cave built by a woodpecker in a rotten tree. The boxes have a 10" x 10" floor, and are approximately 12" deep, with a 3" entry hole. In the British Isles, they use a box that acts more like a ledge than a cavity. Our boxes are used by flickers and starlings, as well as kestrels. All three are welcome birds, even the much maligned starling who may eat a few cherries and grapes, but is first and foremost an insectivore that eats many thousands of grubs.

When offered a selection, the kestrels change nest boxes annually. Just as in organic farming, the rotation interrupts the buildup of pests and diseases. We have come to the conclusion that it is important to offer at least three boxes per nesting pair. The kestrel, starling and flicker belong to three different bird orders, just as humans, dogs and cats belong to different mammal orders, and the three different birds move nest to new locations each year. Last year, as soon as one of our kestrel families left their nest, a pair of flickers moved in and raised their family over the remaining days of the summer. We have three nesting pairs of kestrels close to one another and we suspect this is due to a high density of suitable nest sites.

Their diet in the winter consists of mice and voles. These they carefully eviscerate, abandoning the guts but eating the rest of the animal. We find the entrails left on top of the smaller nesting boxes where the kestrels perch to enjoy their prey. Occasionally they will eat a bird; this spring I watched one grab and consume a junco. They also eat insects, especially grasshoppers, as well as worms and small snakes. The preference is for mice and voles, but in the summer grasshoppers probably assure their survival.

The southern half of the farm provides no natural nesting cavities, nor are there any in the vicinity. There is a grove of trees, but it consists of Oregon ash and hawthorns, neither of which provide a good source of cavities. The ash falls apart before cavities appear and the hawthorn is too small of a tree. As a result, kestrels are rarely seen on that part of the farm during breeding season. This year we added four nesting boxes to the area; a pair settled in and the young are now out of the nest and hanging out in the shelter of the ash and hawthorn grove. One of the considerations in locating the boxes is having cover for the young who cannot fly when they plunge out of the box and are quite helpless for the first few days. Even when they do get aloft, their attempts to land are more akin to a crash onto a limb, and perhaps not the one intended.

Rich Van Buskirk, Associate Professor and Chair of the Environmental Studies Department at Pacific University, has been studying kestrels in the valley, including the four pairs nesting at Ayers Creek. The adults have been trapped and banded, and the chicks are banded as well. The female nesting at the southern end of the farm was from one of the clutches Van Buskirk and his students banded here last year. His work will give us a finer grain picture of the kestrels on the farm over time, and their relationships to one another. He has also been studying the success of birds raised in natural cavities compared to nesting boxes. We enjoy seeing the Professor and his students at the farm on their regular visits. We are, after all, just naturalists who happen to grow some food on the side, and happy when people notice.

See you all Sunday,

Chesters Growers Nonpareil
Carol & Anthony of Gaston

Ayers Creek Farm Newsletter July 20 2014

Sarah West

When we open the stall at Hillsdale Farmers' Market this Sunday, Carol will be with me for the 10:00 bell.

The introduction of my longtime friend Jeff Graham was reciprocated in Wednesday's USA Today, with his reflections after his visit.

http://www.usatoday.com/story/tech/2014/07/15/voices-ditching-tech-on-the-farm/12657569/

We will see what happens with the great chickpea challenge. It was fun having Jeff and Ruth help at the market and the farm, and I hope I will never have to do a tweet.

Opening the A&E section of the Oregonian on Friday was a less pleasant experience. This once distinguished daily broadsheet has devolved into a flimsy, irregular tabloid. But, for crying out loud, you would think they could get the facts straight on blackberries, a fruit for which the backyard of Oregon is known. Under the title "State's lesser berries win time to shine," the entry for Chesterberry states:

"Developed in 2007, the chesterberry is a close cousin to the blackberry, but the fruit is roughly three times as large. In the marionberry family, chesters come with small seeds and a bitter taste."

Chester BlackberriesThe name of the berry is 'Chester Thornless Blackberry' not chesterberry, though we use the less formal Chester. It is capitalized because it is named after a person. Chester came out of the breeding program at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, in 1968, not 2007 as asserted by the author. Sakes alive, we have been selling them at Hillsdale since the market opened in 2002. It is a blackberry, pure and simple, not a cousin. The Chester, a thornless, semi-erect, plant is from a very different breeding line than the Marion, a thorny trailing type plant. There is no familiar similarity between the two and their different ancestries are reflected in the flavor of the berries. Finally, what is this nonsense about the fruit being bitter?

For some strange reason, the primary blackberry researchers at Oregon State University hold the Chester in very low regard, and this shapes the opinions of people who have not actually tasted the berry. I have had numerous discussions with Chad Finn and Bernadine Strik about Chesters, pointing out that it is a magnificent fruit for the smaller, organic grower and perfect for out-of-hand eating, but they are unshakable in their distain for the fruit. Fair enough, we harbor a similar distain for the Marion which is great for industrial, machine harvest farms but not a fruit where the farmer plans to park the ATV and eat berries for a while and think of shoes and ships and sealing wax. I guess that is why we don't grow it. This year, we have plant more blackberry rows, Chesters of course.

Several years ago Kathleen Bauer posted a good essay about the Chester blackberry, nicely illustrated, for those who want the full and interesting history of the berry:

http://www.goodstuffnw.com/2010/08/farm-bulletin-pt-2-taxonomy-of-chester.html

So this is leading up to the acknowledgement that we will have some of the first Chesters of the season tomorrow at Hillsdale. Not many, just a harbinger, first come, first served.

We will probably have some Imperial Epineuse plums as well. Very hot weather slows down the ripening of fruit, so the last couple of cooler days should help. I won't know until I finish writing this and put on my picking harness. It is going to be a good year for the plums and grapes.

We will have plenty of frikeh, some fine purslane and amaranth greens, as well as some fine examples from Frank and Karen Morton's lettuce collection. Amish Butter cornmeal and popcorn. Next week, the Chester season starts in earnest, so this is the week to pickup preserves. Real estate in the van is limited and we do not cede space to preserves when we can bring fresh fruits and vegetables.

We will see you all tomorrow,

Carol and Anthony Boutard
Ayers Creek Farm
Proud Cultivators of the Chester Thornless Blackberry since 1998

Ayers Creek Farm Newsletter August 4 2013

Sarah West

Thursday marked Lammas Day, the day of the loaf mass. The mass celebrates the first loaf baked from the new wheat harvest. The wheat harvest was a time consuming effort involving all members of the community, from the elderly to young children, each playing a specific role. The grain could be cut at maturity and raked into cocks like hay, but more commonly wheat and other small grains were scythed just shy of maturity, at the hard dough stage, bundled in sheathes and tied. The sheathes were carefully stacked for shocking. The structure of the shock varied by region and environmental factors. There were round shocks, capped shocks and Dutch shocks for very wet areas. Shocked grain was easier to thresh as it pulled away slightly from the hull as it dried, and had better color. In the more remote regions of the west, barley and wheat were also "hogged off" by turning pigs into the field, pork being easier to transport than grain. The combine eliminated the shock as a form of regional architecture.

For those of us with a background in tree and other woody plants, Lammas growth is the second growth of shoots that takes place in midsummer, sometimes in response to hail or some other damaging event. In our climate it not a problem, we sometimes encourage it with summer pruning, but in colder areas Lammas growth may fail to harden off properly and suffers frost damage.

We are a bit tardy on our wheat harvest, but it is not that we have been loafing around as will be abundantly clear when we arrive at the Hillsdale Farmers' Market this Sunday. Following ancient practice, the market opens with the chime of a bell at 10:00 AM, or thereabouts.

Coincident with the Lammas, Jeff Fairchild, the produce buyer for New Seasons Market visited the farm on the first of August as Carol was making the first round of deliveries to the various New Seasons stores. Josh Alsberg, the Produce manager at Food Front, has also visited us many times. As members of the Coop, we are one his many of bosses, and when he sells lots of our berries, no only do the stores pay us, but we also get a better patronage check. Some deal. Buffy Rhoades of Pastaworks put in her order as well, and we are waiting for her to visit us someday. Fortunately, all of these stores carry the Chesters, so there is no need to get cut short midweek, stuck with a bunch of grumpy Chester lovers bemoaning your lack of foresight. We enjoy working with Jeff, Josh, Buffy and their staff. As they say in fair Gaston, "Chester, it's the blackberry people ask for by name."

We will also have a good supply of Triple Crowns on hand. The season is shorter for this variety, and they are in the top of their form this week.

In addition to the berries, we will haul in our last Imperial Epineuse prunes. Next week, the green-fleshed plums will take over for a spell. This is the likely the last week we will haul in the preserves, popcorn and dry beans for a while. Real estate in the van is getting scarce and fresh fruits and vegetables need the space. We will have frikeh.  Good looking heads of lettuce and the very first Opo fruits of the Ayers Creek Pepo Project will be added to the mix. More on the ACPP later.

Oh yes, a bit of garlic and shallots as well. Carol spends a lot of time prettying up the garlic, limiting how much we can bring to the market. Yes, it looks lovely, but it will soon be stripped of its blushing raiment so another voice might ask why not let the customer decide whether they want to buy pretty garlic, or just rip off the field covering and enjoy its lusty flavor. If you are disappointed because the last pretty garlic has left the basket and your next meal will be a little less satisfying, tell us whether a dull bulb would meet your culinary needs just as well. The author is spoiling for dismissal and will leave it at that.

With affection,

The Boutards of Ayers Creek

Ayers Creek Farm Newsletter July 28 2013

Sarah West

High summer is the season of dust – the wind, the combines, the plows and traffic all keep the air well endowed. Even walking across the field sends up clouds. It penetrates the clothing and clogs the nasal passages. Every year, as the main berry season approaches, we order in three or four truckloads of crushed rock to dress the road from the field to the farm buildings. This fresh band of rock helps reduce the dust when we bring the berries to the packing room.

Thursday we set up the 50 horsepower pump in case we need to increase the humidity the field so as to prevent damage by ultra-violet radiation when the field temperature passes 90°F (32°C). It ran for a few minutes and then we got the dreaded ALARM 14 EARTH FAULT on the variable frequency drive, the pump's brain. The drives were programmed in Denmark so they use the British term for the ground. We battled this problem last year, but it was erratic and the resetting the computer worked. This time the gremlin settled in and resetting did not work. Spent a couple of hours troubleshooting the problem with the electrician on the phone, connecting and disconnecting leads on the 430 volt system. It was not a temperamental drive or a bad cord, the motor was simply toast. Once again, Ernst Irrigation pulled through and we have new motor on the pump in less than 24 hours after diagnosing the problem. Credit also to our staff who know how to scramble when we need their help, making it easier for the technicians to carry out the swap.  

Nicely groomed and ready to yield us her fruits, the field looks beautiful. It is a farmer-ish thing to have one eye on the current harvest and the other on the primocanes that will produce fruit next year. They are strong and growing vigorously. Last year, a frost in mid May killed the first flush of primocanes and we will have a lighter crop as a result. In the swirl of dust and pump drama, we sowed the the chicories, escaroles and other cool season greens.  

We will have a good load of Chesters this Sunday at Hillsdale. The market runs from 10 AM to 2 PM at the lot near Wilson High School. Several years ago Kathleen Bauer posted an essay about the Chester blackberry for those unfamiliar with the berry:

http://www.goodstuffnw.com/2010/08/farm-bulletin-pt-2-taxonomy-of-chester.html

In addition to Robert Skirvin's fine berries, we will have new potatoes, Imperial Epineuse prunes, frikeh, amaranth greens, purslane, popcorn and a bit of cornmeal.

The storage of fruit is worth considering. In our industrial age, the tendency is to jam it in a refrigerator set at temperature best suited to storing meat and dairy products, under 40°F (4°C). This temperature damages the fruit. The better temperature is around 55°F (13°C), the night-time temperature in the field. The primary spoilage factor in fruit is moisture, not heat. You can dry fruit to preserve it, but if it rains for an extended time, the fruit is soon a moldy mess. True, refrigeration cans slow the progress of spoilage organisms, but at the expense of flavor and aroma. If you want to store berries for a week, it is better to put the fruit into a freezer immediately.

Fruits are best kept in a cool, dry room with good air circulation. Put it in a wire mesh colander, not a bowl or plate. Unlike meat and dairy products, fruits are living tissues and they are respiring. If you put your cherries in a bowl, the moisture generated by respiration collects at the bottom of the bowl and the fruit starts rotting from the bottom up. In a colander, the heavier, moisture-laden air can drain away. We store tomatillos harvested in September until March stored in this manner. Peppers, tomatoes, plums, melons, squash all store better at a moderate temperatures provided they have never been refrigerated. Peppers will last several weeks on the counter.

Our fruit is brought from the field to a cool, dehydrated room with a fan running to keep the air moving. Overnight, the dehydrators draw from the air between two and five gallons of water, depending upon how much fruit we harvest. As long as there is no free moisture on the fruit, and no existing mold, they will not mold. This gentle treatment maintains high fruit quality. Because the fruit is not chilled, when we bring it to the market, no condensation is formed on its surface when it meets the warm, humid air.

This early season fruit is the sturdiest and most intense. It has the highest levels of pectin and acidity, and is well constructed. If you are making preserves, this is the fruit to use. As the season progresses, the pectin and acidity levels drop. Because pectins can mask some of the components of flavor, later season fruit has a different character. For some, the reduced acidity makes the late fruit sweeter on the palate even though it has lower sugar levels. Many of you have heard our warning as the harvest of a fruit winds down: it is more delicate now and won't store well. For the Chester that warning will come about five weeks from now, or following a rainy period.

See you all Sunday,

The Boutards
Ayers Creek Farm
Gaston, Oregon

Ayers Creek Farm Newsletter September 9 2012 Market

Sarah West

 

A cheerful bell ringing at 10 am will see us tallying up your purchases at the Hillsdale Farmers' Market this Sunday.
Finished planting the winter crops this week, including turnips and mustards. Next we start planting the first of the summer crops, garlic, shallots and wheat for frikeh. And you expect us to get the correct change every time when our minds are addled by having to straddle whole seasons. Anyway, you might ask why we continue to plant turnips as none of you want to buy them, and sometimes recoil at the mere suggestion. We are waiting for some sharp researcher to illuminate the common link between the great centenarian cultures. Yes turnips. Theories state that secret of longevity is fish in Japan, yoghurt in Georgia, garlic in Russia, and pomegranates in the Middle East. Jiminy cricket, can't they figure out that turnips are enjoyed and eaten with gusto in all of these long-lived cultures? Hope springs eternal, so we pray the turnips grow well and our perspicacity is rewarded as reason returns to your eating habits. You can even start your centenarian regime now because a diet rich in plums is the other common thread among those cultures. The plums may even generate a hankering for turnips as you feel the spring return to your step.

Here is what we will have at the market, more or less, the advertised specials at any rate:

Chesters: They still in good shape and we will have some this week.

Plums: Seneca, damsons, la mirabelle, prune d'Agen, golden gage – What a lovely way to start the centenarian diet.

Tomatoes: Astiana and striped German. In our estimation, two perfect tomatoes. Astiana is the cooking tomato, richly acidic and flavorful. Striped German is the slicer for the mid-morning tomato sandwich.

Preserves

Roots: Beets and spuds, but not many because of space considerations.

Fresh shell beans: flageolet, cranberry and johnson (aka soldier)

One of the earliest vegetable crops we planted at the farm was shell beans. It was one of those odd ideas the got lodged in our heads, yet we were clueless as to how handle them at a commercial scale. A couple of years later we would repeat the scene with flint corn and frikeh. One of the advantages of farm equipment is that you can plow under your blunders and failures, such as summer turnips, emboldening the creative streak. The beans were planted and we began began to practice the pitch. Sitting around on a hot summer's afternoon shelling beans is a great family time, just like shelling peas. Though, truth be told, as children we had regarded shelling peas and beans as a dreary chore taking us away from far better things.


In the spring of 2000 we planted several different varieties. In June, before the craziness of harvest began, Carol took a week off to visit her parents. In a rural country store, she saw a container of freshly shelled butter beans (limas). She joked that it must be a lot of work to shell all those beans. The woman directed her to a shed out back where they had a bean shelling machine. The big green wooden machine had hand-routed on its front panel "Roto-Fingers Pea-Bean Sheller." The manufacturer was Welburn Devices in Laurel, Mississippi. A few weeks later, Larry Welburn shipped his first Roto-Fingers west of the Continental Divide. He quipped that it is highly unusual to find any identifying marks on the machines because, once a farmer had one, the information was obliterated to keep the information away from any competitors.

The Roto-Fingers is a batch sheller. About 20 pounds of beans are shelled at a time, and it is a very gentle process. All of our dry beans are shelled in the machine as well. Fourteen years later, many tons of beans have gone through this contrivance handmade one at a time down there in Laurel, and it still runs perfectly.

Fresh shell beans are the equivalent of new potatoes or frikeh sans the smokiness. They are still developing their starches, and they have more of a vegetable flavor than the dry forms. Initially we harvested them very green, but over time we found they are better when they have a range of maturities in the mix. Not every dry bean is good fresh shelled, and some are very dull indeed. In addition, some shell in a messy fashion and take a long time to clean. The beans, shelled or unshelled, should be refrigerated. Part of the mythology about shell beans is that they keep better in the shell. This is not true, the shells are big chunk of respiring tissue which generates heat and often mold in storage, compromising the beans inside. When harvested, the shell comprises between 50 and 60 percent of the bean's weight.

The soldier or johnson is a white bean from northern New England with a reddish figure around the eye that reminds some of a soldier and others, with a less martial mindset, see a piece of anatomy. Use it as you would a cannellino bean, very good in a cold salad with tuna and some minced shallot. Get a bit of albacore from Robin at Wild Oregon, or a bit of salmon. The flageolet is a small green bean which is often served as a side dish with lamb or in a gratin. The name comes from a French wind instrument similar to a recorder. Vermont Cranberry has the most robust in flavor of the three, yet will disappoint you when the beautiful pink bean turns a muddy brown as you cook it. At that point you are left to enjoy the distinguished flavor. A bit of acid will restore some of the markings.

Chastened after purgatory among the berry flats, the staff writer is even offering a recipe in compliance with the essential style manual for market farm newsletters. If you are inclined to ignore such instruction, there are two things to remember. Never eat shell beans raw. You will suffer a stomach ache that you will never forget. When cooking any type of beans, add any acid ingredients, such as tomatoes, after cooking. Otherwise, the beans don't cook well and stay tough.  In some parts of the country, they add a pinch of soda or slack lime to the water to keep it on the alkaline side of neutral.

Cooking Fresh Shelling Beans

Judy Rogers offers this excellent method in her cookbook, The Zuni Café Cookbook  (2002, W.W. Norton and Co.)    

For about 2 cups:
2 cups fresh shelling beans
1 carrot, peeled, split lengthwise and cut into chunks or minced
1 small, yellow onion, quartered
1 bay leaf
Salt
2 Tablespoons olive oil.

Directions:

Rinse the beans in cold water.  

Place the carrot, onion and bay leaf in a 2-quart pan and add cold water to cover.  Cover and simmer over low heat until the vegetables have softened and flavored the water, about 25 minutes.

Add the beans and enough additional water to cover.  Some varieties may turn the water grey. Bring to a simmer then tilt the pot and skim any foam that floats to the surface.

Simmer gently uncovered until the beans are tender, 15 to 30 minutes, depending on the variety and point of maturity. Stir a few times to ensure even cooking and add water as needed to keep everything just covered. To test for doneness, cut a bean in half.  The bean should be moist and tender with no pale, chalky core.  Remove the pan from the heat and stir in salt to taste.   As it takes time for the beans to absorb the salt, taste the liquid, not the beans for the right saltiness.  Stir in the olive oil and leave the beans to cool in the cooking liquid.

Cover and refrigerate up to 4 days in their liquid.

See you all Sunday,

The Boutards of Gaston

Ayers Creek Farm Newsletter September 2 2012 Market

Sarah West

This weekend marks the sartorial end of summer, and autumn is certainly in the air as well. Tomorrow, Sunday, we will start the day at the Hillsdale Farmers' Market in a sweater as we watch the waning and very gibbous moon set in the west, but by mid-day we will have shed the woolies. The bell rings at 10:00.

We will have Chesters, seneca prunes, beets, potatoes, karela and some other stuff.

The staff writer has been placed on unpaid administrative leave for wanton disregard of the essential style manual for market farm newsletters as well as ignoring standard food jargon and forgetting recipes. Dead people and bees, but no recipes? Sentenced to hauling heavy flats berries without end all week, that should send a message.

Cheers and see you all tomorrow,

Carol and Anthony Boutard

Ayers Creek Farm Newsletter August 29 2012 Market

Sarah West

Yet another relaxing Sunday morning will be denied us as we hasten to the Hillsdale Farmers' Market in order to be ready for you all at the ding of the bell, around 10:00 AM.

Gage Plums & BlackberriesWe are on cusp of September when the shell beans, prunes and grapes will be ready. We just finshed threshing barley and will begin harvesting the chickpeas next week. Fortunately, the blackberries are still excellent, so we will have a very full van. Here is what we will have:

Plums: Reine Claude aka green gage

Those raised on the salty music hall routines of Stanley Holloway, who also played Albert Dolittle in My Fair Lady, will remember his little ditty about one of Henry's wives:

In the Tower of London large as life,
The ghost of Ann Boleyn walks, they declare,
Poor Ann Boleyn was once King Henry's wife,
Until he made the axman bob her hair,
Ah yes he did a rum glum years ago,
And she comes up at night to tell him so,
With her head tucked underneath her arm,
She walks the bloody tower,
With her head tucked underneath her arm,
At the midnight hour.

So what does Anne Boleyn have to do with Queen Claude, aside from both sharing a tragically short life? Boleyn and her sister were Queen Claude's ladies in waiting. Like Claude — la bonne reine — and the various wives of Henry, the green gages will also have a very short life, so enjoy their rich, acidic charms, barely contained within the delicate skin, while they are here.

Indeed, growing the gages is more of a courtship than actual farming; neither plant nor grower knows what they are doing so nothing happens as it should. You may recall the old Gastonian quip: The green gage will break your heart twice, once when growing it, and again as it enters your mouth.

Blackberries: Chesters & Triple Crown, to the extent we can persuade staff to pick them.

Pole Beans

Beets, Spuds and some Onions

Preserves
______________________________________________________

A Queen with a Pearl Collar

It is late summer and, as usual, members of Hymenoptera — the insect order that groups together the wasps, bees and ants — are putting on a show. About two weeks ago, a large cohort of male bumble bees emerged. Fidgety and playfully pugnacious, they fly about just inches above the ground, darting here and there, trying to stay out-of-reach of any remaining barn swallows seeking a quick snack on the way to Capistrano. Their shape, coloration and behavior is very different from the females of the colony — the queen and her daughters the workers. The males do not have a stinger.

The male bumble bee develops from an unfertilized egg. In other words, denied sperm an egg paradoxically yields a male. Fatherless male offspring is one of those peculiar twists that makes the Hymenoptera so interesting. Both the queen and her sisters can produce eggs, but only the queen has mated and produces fertilized eggs which develop into the females of the nest. The sperm from her nuptial flights is held in a special organ, and the eggs are fertilized as they are laid, or not in the case of males. Typically, the males appear towards the end of the colony's existence and may have hatched from an egg laid by either the queen or one of her daughters.

Despite their aimless flight pattern and endless tousling with their brethren, the males are ever alert for the emergence of a newly hatched queen, or gyne as entomologists call her, and the opportunity to mate with her. Apparently, the males identify her by sight not a chemical cue, which may explain why a hapless swallow-tail passing through earlier this week found itself mobbed by amorous bumblebees. Discovering this lek of bees, we shared with the males a keen interest in seeing the queens emerge, pausing to survey the area as we passed at various times during the day. The nest is in an old mouse hole in the heavily travelled lane between the blackberry fields. Monday the show began.

The new queens are genetically the same the worker sorority; there is no special queen gene. They are raised in larger wax vessels than the workers, and they are fed more food during the larval stage. In order to survive the winter and a summer of laying eggs, a more robust body is needed. After emerging from their pupae, these large females linger in the nest and fatten up for a few days. They emerge from the nest, mostly individually, groom themselves and then take flight. In seconds, the males converge upon her and, in a airborne scrum, try to do the honors. Once a coupling occurs, the surplus males drift back to their posts and the job is finished on the ground. After mating, the queen quickly seeks shelter. She mates more than once and, well provisioned with sperm, she will spend some time building her fat reserves for the winter hibernation. If all goes well, she will emerge from her hibernation lair in the spring and start a new colony.

We have at least four bumblebee species on the farm. The white-shouldered, black tailed, yellow-faced and the brown-belted – the latter are the queens emerging this week. The scientific name is Bombus griseocollis and translates into "bumblebee with a pearl-grey neck," probably referring to a fine line of hairs that encircle the neckline of the females. The brown belt of the English name refers to a distinct band of brown hairs on second abdominal section of the males, just behind the wings. The newly emerged gyne is very beautiful. Her coat is much lighter than the male's or worker's. Interestingly, the male brown-belted bumblebees darting about are not merely callow Lotharios; it is one of four bumblebee species where the males actually assist in the nest by incubating the brood, an important task.

The bumblebees can be difficult to identify, prompting one entomologist to call them "morphologically monotonous." The key distinguishing characteristic are differences in the male genitalia, perhaps prompting this observation. Fortunately overall appearance is sometimes enough and Rich Hatfield at the Xerces Society identified the bee for us from a photo. Xerces is based in Portland, and is internationally recognized for its efforts at invertebrate conservation. They have produced many useful publications, both print and on-line, and issue a quarterly magazine called Wings. Xerces is a very important and well-run organization.

See you all Sunday,

Carol and Anthony Boutard
Ayers Creek Farm